Millions later ... nothing to show - The state auditor and the Mason County League of Women Voters want to know what happened to the $4.3 million spent on the much publicized project.
Angela D. Smith
Belfair, Washington - The state auditor will meet with the Mason County auditor today to see how the county is responding to allegations that it spent more than $4.3 million on a North Mason project with nothing to show for it.
The Mason County League of Women Voters submitted a 12-page report to county commissioners and State Auditor Brian Sonntag last week questioning the costs associated with the Belfair Bypass and Highway 101 Connector.
The two proposed road projects were among the biggest and most controversial in the county's history until one was canceled and the other was abruptly suspended.
Mason County commissioners have decided to ask County Auditor Al Brotche to review the costs, although they deny there was any wrongdoing, said Commissioner Bob Holter. The commission also will discuss other recommendations made in the report.
The League of Women Voters' report concluded the county has spent more than $4.33 million of an appropriated $5 million without proper oversight and a "cavalier" attitude.
All of the money came from Mason County coffers, with the exception of $423,000 that was provided by the state.
"All this money has been spent and not a shovel of earth has been turned," League President Marilyn Johnston said. "It's just an awful lot of money to be spending, taxpayer money."
The two projects started as one in 1998 with a $1.2 million feasibility study. The costs kept rising as the scope of the projects changed and the two were separated.
Eventually, the costs ballooned to what the Mason County Public Works Department has in its accounting records as $3.2 million.
"They did not put in related costs," Johnston said.
Nor did the county properly oversee costs, the report stated.
Work on the Highway 101 Connector, which would have connected Highway 3 in Belfair with Highway 101, was scrapped by the current commission last summer.
Work on the Belfair Bypass, an approved 4.5-mile route around Highway 3, was halted in April because of a contract disagreement.
The report also included more than a dozen recommendations for action, including audits, ending favoritism for parts of the county, ending heavy reliance on consultants and regular cost reports.
"The bills came in, they (county officials) paid them and that was it," Johnston said. "It appears to us there could have been a much better way of evaluating costs."
Commissioners said in a statement Tuesday that they also will now require a summary of project expenses on all sequential expenditure requests.
The current commission distanced itself from actions taken during a majority of the projects. Holter has only been a commissioner since August when Mary Jo Cady stepped down; Wes Johnson and Herb Baze were elected in 2000.
"We were not seated when these two projects started," Holter said. The only actions the current commission has taken were to scrap the 101 connector project and suspend the bypass project, although the project isn't dead, Holter said.
As for cost accountability for the two projects — "that's for someone else to decide," Holter said.
"Oversight is a subjective idea," Holter said, adding that road projects like the bypass usually are very expensive.
The League of Women Voters spent more than 2,500 hours during the past year poring over receipts and documents related to the bypass and 101 connector. They also spent more than $600 to pay for the public documents reviewed for their report.
"I've never seen an effort like this," Sonntag said of the report. "To put this kind of effort ... on one policy or issue is phenomenal."
He will meet with County Auditor Brotche this morning to see how the state can help an internal review.
Published in The Sun: 07/24/2002
State auditor praises probe of bypass
The state auditor lauded members of the Mason County League of Women Voters as "thoughtful" and "credible" for a study critical of two multimillion-dollar highway projects that were never started.
On Wednesday, Brian Sonntag pledged his office's help as Mason County officials delve further into the financial records of the Belfair Bypass and the Highway 101 Connector.
The group forwarded the study to Sonntag last week. The state auditor said he receives requests for investigations from the public "at least occasionally."
"What I've never seen is an investigation on their part as thorough and exhaustive as this one," he said.
The report also detailed problems the league encountered when trying to gather information — a point that Sonntag mentioned: "What concerns me as well is the openness."
LWV President Marilyn Johnston said she and league members "welcome a positive thrust toward getting this answered."
"I know our county auditor will welcome any help he can get from the state."
Johnston and the league's 20 active members spent
2,500 hours and $600 during the past year researching the financial records of the Belfair Bypass and Highway 101 Connector. According to their 12-page report, league members estimate the two projects have cost $4.3 million, without a shovel of dirt being turned.
Mason County Auditor Al Brotche said he received an official request from county commissioners Thursday to audit the projects' financial records.
Brotche said his office has performed many audits, but never one resulting from a study like the league's.
Brotche said his office will "move as diligently as possible" to complete the audit.
Brotche, Sonntag and county commissioners will meet again Monday to discuss the audit and define its focus. Sonntag said he will serve strictly as an adviser, unless county officials ask for state help.
If built, the Belfair Bypass would reroute Highway 3 traffic around Belfair on a 4.5-mile stretch of road. Work on the bypass stopped in April because of a contract dispute.
The 101 Connector, which was scrapped by current commissioners last summer, would have connected Highway 3 in Belfair to Highway 101.
Published in The Sun: 07/25/2002
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